Friday, 19 February 2021

The National Water Reform Draft Report has been released - now is the time for concerned Australians to speak up and loudly

If there is one thing that Australians know well by now, it is that state and federal governments frequently take from major reports only those points and recommendations which fit with their own political world view and/or those that can be easily distorted to meet the expectations of their party's financial backers - thus ensuring that little positive change occurs .

Water is the basis of life, without it communities perish and nations go into decline. That is one of the hard facts facing Australia as the impacts of climate change start to bite.

It is time for people to stand up in defence of this country's river and ground water systems and make sure governments understand that the environmental, economic and cultural vandalism they have supported in the past will no longer be tolerated in the present or the future. 

Australian Government, Productivity Commission:

National Water Reform Draft report 

This draft report was released on 11 February 2021. This draft report assesses the progress of the Australian, State and Territory governments towards achieving the objectives and outcomes of the National Water Initiative (NWI), and provides practical advice on future directions for national water reform. 

You are invited to examine the draft report and to make a written submission or brief comment by Wednesday 24 March 2021. 

 Make a submission or Make a brief comment 

The final report is expected to be handed to the Australian Government by the end of June 2021.

Download the draft report

The Conversation, 11 February 2021:

Most Australians know all too well how precious water is. Sydney just experienced a severe drought, while towns across New South Wales and Queensland ran out of drinking water. Under climate change, the situation will become more dire, and more common. 

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In 2004, federal, state and territory governments signed up to the National Water Initiative. It was meant to secure Australia’s water supplies through better governance and plans for sustainable use across industry, environment and the community. 

But a report by the Productivity Commission released today says the policy must be updated. It found the National Water Initiative is not fit for the challenges of climate change, a growing population and our changing perceptions of how we value water. 

The report’s findings matter to all Australians, whether you live in a city or a drought-ravaged town. If governments don’t manage water better, on our behalf, then entire communities may disappear. Agriculture will suffer and nature will continue to degrade. It’s time for a change.

The report acknowledges progress in national water reform, and says Australia’s allocation of water resources has improved. But the commission makes clear there’s still much to be done, including: 

  • making water infrastructure projects a critical part of the National Water Initiative 

  • explicitly recognising how climate change threatens water-sharing agreement between states, users, towns, agriculture and the environment 

  • more meaningful recognition of Indigenous rights to water delivering adequate drinking water quality to all Australians, including those in regional and remote communities, especially during drought 

  • all states committing to drought management plans.

Read the full article here.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 2021:

A new national water reform report is inundated with positivity. But a closer look leaves you with a sinking feeling.

A glance at the draft report on national water reform from the Productivity Commission reminds me of the repeated judgment from old Mr Grace, the doddering owner of the department store in Are You Being Served? as he headed for the door: "You've all done very well!"

Its review of the progress of the National Water Initiative signed by the federal and state governments in 2004 - encompassing agreements on the Murray-Darling Basin - is terribly polite and relentlessly upbeat.

Apparently, governments have made "good progress" in having "largely achieved" their reform commitments. All that remains is just the need for a teensy-weensy bit of "policy renewal".

This mild-mannered stuff and congratulatory tone bear no resemblance to my memories of meetings of angry farmers railing against stupid greenies and other city slickers; of their insistence that the immediate needs of irrigators and irrigation towns along the river take priority over the river system's ultimate survival; of state governments' insistence on favouring their own irrigators over those in states further down the river; of federal and state National Party ministers happy to slip farmers a quiet favour, turning a blind eye to blatant infringements of the rules; of federal Labor ministers who, even with no seats to lose in the region, were unwilling to make themselves unpopular by standing up for the rivers' future.

I remember that the Howard government spent billions helping individual farmers make their irrigation systems more resistant to evaporation and seepage when all the benefits went to the farmer and none to the river system.

I remember all the infighting between government water agencies, and the mass fish kills during the recent drought in NSW and Queensland, for which the managers of the system accepted no responsibility.

Fortunately, reporters are adept at ignoring all the happy flannel up the front of government reports and finding the carefully hidden bad bits. And we have the assistance of water experts, including Professor Quentin Grafton, of the Australian National University, whose summary of the report in The Conversation is headed: "Our national water policy is outdated, unfair and not fit for climate challenges."

"If governments don't manage water better ... entire communities may disappear. Agriculture will suffer and nature will continue to degrade," he says.

The report's proposal to make "water infrastructure developments" a much larger part of the National Water Initiative is a critical way to keep governments honest. For years, state and federal governments have used taxpayers' dollars to pay for farming water infrastructure that largely benefits big corporate irrigators, Grafton says.

Last year the Morrison government announced a further $2 billion for its Building 21st Century Water Infrastructure project. Such megaprojects, he says, perpetuate the myth that Australia - the driest inhabited continent on Earth - can be "drought-proofed".

When governments signed the original initiative in 2004, they agreed to ensure investments in infrastructure would be both economically viable and ecologically sustainable. But many projects appear to be neither.

The report notes, for example, that building the Dungowan Dam in NSW means "any infrastructure that improves reliability for one user will affect water availability for others". The "prospect of 'new' water is illusory". Projects that aren't economically viable or ecologically sustainable can "burden taxpayers with ongoing costs, discourage efficient water use" and create long-lived impacts on communities and the environment", the report warns.

Equally disturbing is that billions of dollars for water infrastructure are presently targeted primarily at the agriculture and mining industries, while communities in desperate need of clean drinking water miss out, Grafton says.

Luckily, the report isn't so house trained as to avoid mentioning the gorilla the Morrison government prefers not to notice. There's a lot about the consequences of climate change. It says droughts will likely become more intense and frequent and, in many places, water will become scarce.

In Grafton's summary, the report says planning provisions were inadequate to deal with both the millennium drought and the recent drought in Eastern Australia. The 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan, for instance, took no account of climate change when determining how much water to take from waterways.

The present federal government actually dismantled the National Water Commission in 2015, so we no longer have a resourced, well-informed agency to "mark the homework" and make sure the reforms were being implemented as agreed, Grafton says.

In 2007, the worst year of the millennium drought - and the year John Howard feared he'd lose the election if he didn't match Labor's promise to introduce an emissions trading scheme - Howard remarked that "in a protracted drought, and with the prospect of long-term climate change, we need radical and permanent change".

Professor Grafton says we're still waiting for that change. "If Australia is to be prosperous and liveable into the future, governments must urgently implement water reform."

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